“Where can I find bacon on a stick?” From such simple origins, Satisfi Labs built an AI product to answer the questions event-goers really want to know… Here is the first episode in our podcast series hosted by the 2023 Awards Advisory Board. Here, Fmr Groupon Head of Product Kristopher Drey leads the conversation. His guest is Satisfi Labs CEO & Co-Founder Don White. They talk about Satisfi Labs’ quest to build a conversational AI tech platform on the theory that it should answer everything. Including where to find bacon on a stick.

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Transcript

Kris Drey

Hello, and welcome to the Product Talk podcast. This is a special series titled Product Industries to Watch, in which we’re taking a deep dive into specific product verticals in preparation for the 2023 Products That Count Product Wwards. I’m your host for this episode, Khristopher Drey. I’m a digital product leader in the PropTech space focusing on technologies such as IoT, immersive computing, AI, ml, and RPA. My guest today is Satisfi Labs founder and CEO Don White. Thank you for joining me today, Don.

Don White

Thank you. Pleasure to be here.

Kris

Okay, why don’t you tell me a little bit about yourself? Before we dive into the questions about Satisfi Labs.

Don

I’m a recovering head of product. Recovering meaning I was head of product early in my career. I started in ops at Bloomberg. Then was able to become a product lead for the equity trading products. Complained to the CEO one day that salespeople were not selling my products well enough. That’s how you become the head of sales. So I was able to transition from head of product to head of sales. So I have all three kind of points of view. Which was very efficient for me in the startup realm, where you are forced to wear many hats. But product to me is the central of every company. So I’m glad to have that experience and bring it here.

Kris

Yeah, that’s great. I mean, super well rounded. I mean, that’s the key of any good product manager, right? I mean, you’ve got to be this liaison that speaks every language in the company. whether it’s to sales or marketing or engineering. so you’ve got that in spades, obviously. Okay, so let’s dive deep. Let’s get into Satisfi Labs. Your core product, how you founded the business, all that good stuff.

Don

My partner and I are actually focused on algorithmic trading. So when I was head of product at Bloomberg, electronic trading is machines trading like people would or do. My partner was a head of prop trading at CIBC. So we both had a similar experience or interest in machines doing tasks that people do. So we came together, we talked about what a search engine would look like, inside a building. So whereas Google was very top down, how would you build a search engine bottom up?

And so the origin story is that he was looking at a menu of Citi Field. We were going to have a meeting with the New York Mets. And he goes, Hey, do you know there’s bacon on a stick there? And I said, No. How would I know that? He goes, Exactly. I go, exactly.

And so we went into the meeting with where can I find bacon on a stick as one of the suggested searches, and the product really took off. Because the pork vendor in the back suddenly got all this volume. Because we were just suggesting the searches most people were asking for. And that started Satisfi Labs. And today we are a conversational AI platform built for destinations and experiences to help people get their questions answered and their transactions processed as quickly as possible.

Kris

Awesome. That’s fantastic. I love the product. I am actually a user of your product. As you well know. I’ve instantiated your technology in three different ways at my past employer, and personally I am a massive fan of what you guys do.

And you know, you guys just in my opinion, I did a lot of homework and looked at a lot of players in the space. And you guys stood out to me. And I’m glad that we work together. It’s been a phenomenal experience and again, I love the technology. So speaking about standing out in the field, how do you guys stand out? What’s your kind of secret sauce, if you will?

Don

It’s interesting. Sometimes you try to figure out what the differentiator is, is it your service level? I’ve always believed it’s got to be your tech and we went to the AI space. Everyone told me, Well, if this was like a thing, Google will just stomp you and do it instead of you. And we said, but we think they’re solving a different problem. I think that’s important when you’re building a product, what problem you’re trying to solve? Is there a better way to solve it? 

So what differentiates us is we actually don’t deploy a single AI bot, if you will. It’s actually a team. our belief early on was that AI and machine learning would struggle when you try to put all the information and all the context, if you will, in one system or one container. So we essentially built a chain. We call them assistants, and each individual assistant has a certain subject matter that they specialize in. And there’s a conductor at the top, who says, Oh, I know, this is food related. I’m going to ask the food and beverage assistant and get a more granular answer.

Because the context has been set that I’m talking about food, or ticketing, or health and safety. So our technology is patent pending right now. And Google invested. one of our largest investors in late 2019. So when Google invests in a platform that you were told shouldn’t exist, because Google will destroy it, and they’re sitting on your board. Two years later, it’s a pretty good product moment. For anyone who’s been involved in that kind of thing.

Kris

Yeah, fantastic. I love it. Congratulations. So I’m super excited to hear that you were there before them. 

Don

I remember that you were a believer. And I do appreciate that. It’s hard when you’re starting a product in a space where there’s a dominant player that you have to consider what disruption looks like. And yeah, so it’s, it’s fun. It’s been fun.

Kris

So we were talking a little bit before we started recording about the product being kind of on prem, if you will. And COVID coming into reality and how that affected you. Can you tell me a little more about that?

Don

Yes. So we at that time had about 200 customers, March 2020. Our business is heavily in sports, entertainment, and tourism. So a lot about the experience on location, whether it be a retail destination, zoo, aquarium, theme park, baseball, football, or an arena for hockey or basketball. All these places are really right for the search experiences.

So imagine March 2020, every client basically shuts down. So the need for your product goes to zero, because you’re facilitating an experience that no longer exists. 

So now I have 20 Some employees, what are you going to do? You know, you need cash to run the company? And what we then started to consider is, okay, well, what assistance can the technology support without, you know, building a new product? Like, what else could they do?

And someone said, Well, what about a health and safety assistant? These people are gonna have a lot of questions about vaccines and information about potential returns. And when things reopen, they go, Well, what about an at home assistant? someone or a team and info they called it, assistant. 

New knowledge bases

So these new knowledge bases started to grow from not just the health and safety angle, but the at home angle. And by the end of 2020 50% of the questions we were answering had never before been seen in the three years prior. So the questions shifted.

And we were able to report to our clients look, because we built our system a certain way, which wasn’t patent pending at the time, but is we were able to see a shift in customer demand interest. Therefore you need us whether your arena is open or closed, just to understand the insights of your customer. 

So that was a huge opportunity in the end. and Actually, as many product people could probably attest, we redesigned our NLP, while there was a little less customer noise. And the thing that we just patented was built out of having to handle these new queries and how to better handle the future explosion of queries. So development came out of that difficult, difficult time.

Kris

Yeah, gosh, that’s fascinating. I mean, COVID affected all of us in so many ways. So profoundly, you know, it’s, it changed business models. it changed products. It has been just absolutely astounding. So, along those lines, you know, we talked a little bit in the beginning about, you know, your decision to start the company, and what kind of, you know, prompted that.

tell me a little bit more with regards to the evolution of the product. from the first idea of what you wanted to do until, you know, all the way up to today?

Don

Where can I find bacon on a stick has had an interesting lifespan. And so when you position your product, immediately people adopt it based on the story you tell? So it became a food and beverage finder from the first day. And then it expanded into like, what, what’s the best gate? And then what’s always fascinating is when someone finds your product and says, Hey, have you ever thought about this?

Now, as a former product person, I don’t like when most people do that. because I want data oriented stories/ any salesperson will go into a sales meeting and say, Oh, what the client said, they don’t want to buy what we have. But if it did this, they would buy it. And then you tell it salesperson to go get a life. 

And so what you have, but in this case, someone said, Well, hey, do you know how many questions there are about tickets? And I go, No, there’s none. They go, No, I’m from the Broadway industry, the live theater industry, the ticket office and ticket will call and all these things are burdened with before purchase pre purchase ticketing, how easy Can I buy one to post.

So we built ticketing focus products and launched with brands like wicked and, and eventually got a bunch of investors from that space.

Answering everything

And then as we started, when we started the product, our theory was it should answer everything. which was a very different approach, then, a lot of the conversational AI was containerized, like, I’m gonna build a dumb button bot and try to like, deflect you, where we build a system that would try to understand everything. and at worst would archive it for later, as we started to understand more and more knowledge, that’s how these assistants were born, if you will. 

Oh, so a lot of people want to know about ATA stuff, which is the accessibility of events. A lot of people want to know about parking, oh, people now want to know about certain venues, things going on or activity. So it grew from the data.

But if my partner, His name is Randy Newman, co founder hadn’t said I need to understand everything from the original design, the evolution would have been hurt. because we would have gone to market with a very simple thing that probably fulfill the need. But we would have been behind the curve on the advancement of now. So I’m happy with where it ended. But early on, I thought we were over engineered for the first few years. And I was wrong. He was right.

Kris

Yeah. Way to go, Randy. It’s fascinating, you know, with the wealth of data that you’re sitting on, you know, I mean, you guys are based and built upon data. And not only do you have all the other, you know, the typical data points that are out there in the world with regards to primary and secondary research and whatnot. 

But you guys have this unique data that you are, in essence creating by putting your tools out there and taking in all of this information with regards to what people are asking. What are they looking for? What do they want? What do they need, you know, so it’s a, it’s a really, you know, powerful position, because like you’ve done, you’ve leveraged that data, to build and change and iterate upon your product, which is just tremendous. 

So tell me a little bit about you know, your product team being an X product guy, you know. I’m sure you have very high demands on your product people, you know. what makes a great product manager at Satisfi?

Don

We have two product managers. And the chief product officer is my co founder. he transitioned from CTO to CPO actually this past year. that’s an interesting transition for why we did that. We wanted him to be more the leader of what we build less the executor of it. Then we hired a CTO that. he formerly worked with it, CIBC. so we kept it in the finance family. 

but a good product manager and you kind of highlighted earlier. how do you decipher the information you’re getting from either the market quote unquote, public information versus the salespeople versus the client success people versus the office people? Like how do you aggregate information and, and remove the noise.

We had a recent example where a client, a very instrumental client was asking for a certain point, mapping integration. And so early on in our career, it would have been, we’ll just just build it. just build it like, you know, client existing. you probably asked me for that at one point or another. They’re important to us. Where we’re small, and we will do everything they can to please them. just build it. 

And this time, he sat back and said, Look, I actually want to look at, I’m gonna look at what they want. and their company. I’m going to look at three other mapping solutions. So I can figure out how we could potentially do one to many. So is there some commonality in this integration that we could plug in Three versus one? Is there another company that we might want to go talk to that has more clients is it’s about growth, or about making our current clients happy. 

And some people get annoyed when product managers ask business questions. 

Like they’ll say, Listen, you’re a product manager, all I want you to do is figure out how to build the integration map company. Yeah, but I actually like a point of view and our product managers have business experience or points of view to say, Hey, I just want to make sure I’m challenging myself in the right way. like not in an arrogant way.

But making sure that the business case have been thought of because I’m a resource devs resource, I just want us all on the same page on why we’re doing it. So when we deliver it, we have success metrics, and I can take some pride in my work versus I think a bad product manager has just takes what they’re told to do and finds a way to do it.

Kris

Right. Yeah, that’s a really good point. I mean, the product ultimately, is better. If that product person building it is a well rounded, knowledgeable human that understands the business that understands the marketing needs, the UI, the UX, all of that stuff. So I definitely share that attitude and opinion with you for sure that. you know, having a well rounded, rounded product person is very helpful and critical to the success of any product launch. 

And speaking of that product launches. and you know, kind of changing the subject a little bit from Product Manager to actual product. what in your mind, you know, I’m sure as a past product leader, and as a company leader, you know, you have very kind of high expectations for what you want to do and what not. So what makes a great product, in your opinion?

Don

One that the buyer or user easily understands the ROI. Like there’s, there’s one product that we didn’t build that I love right now is gong.io. It’s a sales acceleration product. it taps into your zoom. it records and transcribes sales conversations.

And then as a me or sales management, I can easily pull up a customer pitch. and even hone in on certain areas of the conversation like when pricing came up. So as a former sales leader, or product leader, being able to get that data in such a short period of time and not have to sit on calls to listen to customer feedback, I immediately know the ROI. I need it, I know how to use it and have it applied. 

I think our product strives for that as well. I mean, our retention average is somewhere in the 96% range. So most of our clients have been with us since we were. When they come they usually stay. I think the most we lost in a year was 20. And that was during COVID We got 17 of them back. But when you use a product you want to, it needs to become something that is part of your daily work or life and not something that is a burden to consider.

But more likely, if I didn’t have this, it would cause me pain. That’s a good point. I think of Spotify as a product. I think of my video doorbell where I spy on my daughter’s boyfriends when they come to the Door, like, yeah, there’s all these products that you just know, hey, this is part of my life. And without it, I would suffer. That’s a good product to me.

Kris

That’s awesome. Yeah, I agree. I mean, it could be the simplest thing you know, but as long as it’s a big part of your life, then that makes it, you know, to your point a really great product. That’s fascinating. I was thinking a little bit while you were talking. about, you know, other things that products that I appreciate that have become a big part of my life and whatnot.

And, you know, things that kind of simplify, you know, like, Take, for example, a really big deal. And a product will make it feel like a good product will make it feel like it’s not such a big deal. 

So like Venmo as an example, you know. It’s your money, and Venmo makes it feel like a kid’s app. like a child’s toy, you know, it’s just, it’s so light and easy and simple and straightforward. But again, it’s handling our cash. So it’s a very big deal. And the fact that they make it feel so simplistic and easy is just very, very successful and astounding to me. It’s awesome. Kind of like your work. 

Don

Thank you. We try. 

Kris

Well done. This has been amazing. Thank you very much. I really appreciate your time. I appreciate your product, your energy, your passion. We need more people like you on the planet. So it’s been a pleasure.

Don

Thank you. Thanks for having me and always good to talk product. So any time you or someone wants to hash these out, I’m always excited for a conversation. 

Kris

Thanks, Don.

About the speaker
Satisfi Labs, CEO Member
About the host
Kristopher Drey Groupon, Head of Product, Search & Recommendations
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